Motor City Gladness

route95Some auto thoughts and recollections coming off another smashing media preview week at the North American International Auto show.

I had a friend in high school named Neil. He owned a brand new light green Pontiac TransAm, while I drove a ’62 Pontiac Tempest my dad bought for $25. No one loved my Tempest. Everyone loved Neil’s TransAm. One night, a bunch of us who were admitted “Neil’s TransAm Disciples,” gathered in his driveway and watched him install a set of Thrush mufflers that gave the car at least 5 extra sets of balls when Neil nailed the accelerator. Only Neil was allowed to nail the accelerator, or touch the steering wheel or deem to sit within the holy walls of of Neil’s TransAm…without Neil’s permission, of course. Besides, it had a white almost-leather interior and who needed the mortification of marring the chemically-produced cloud?

Honestly, I never gave much thought about cars after the gang scattered to universities across the country.
My first new car was a groovy red, 1974 Chevy Vega, which went through three transmissions in the three miserable years I owned it. Many years later, as the GM beat reporter for The Detroit News, I interviewed a union officer at the Lordstown, Ohio plant that produced my red lemon. He said to me “You owned a Vega? Well on behalf of all the men and women here at Lordstown, we sincerely apologize!”

As you can plainly see, I was less than an automotive aficionado…otherwise I might have settled on a Gremlin or Pacer, the Vega’s partners in the 1970’s Triad of Dreck.
My automotive ambivalence changed drastically when CNN transferred me from Atlanta to Detroit to be the bureau chief and correspondent there. Back then the bureau was in the basement of the PBS station, WTVS, two blocks from the former General Motors headquarters. I was told Ted Turner directed the bureau be located there because he wanted to be close to the biggest company in the biggest, most important industry in the country.

My education into the auto industry was swift and brutal. I was sent to interview Ford’s chief numbers cruncher for a sales story. He was three months from retirement and didn’t suffer newbies lightly.
“Sit your ass down, listen to what I say, learn from it and don’t ask any stupid questions. Got that?” How could I not?

I actually found the men and women of this great industry to be very understanding about my learning curve and as long as I didn’t act like a cocky dipshit, they were happy to help my learn the ropes.

Indeed, there I was, in a conference room with the great Lee Iacocca at Chrysler’s old Highland Park, MI headquarters. He strided into the room with a big cigar, handed the big, wet thing to his PR guy, shook my hand, smiled and asked “what’s on your mind?”
Yeah, I was starstruck because I had just read his memoirs before moving up north.
I told him I was new, and apologized if my questions seemed simple or naiive.
He gave me another big smile and said, “don’t shit your pants, ask me anything you like and I’ll make it easy for you…and welcome to Detroit.”

That was 1989. This is now. Detroit’s always been welcome to me and my family and I can’t think of a reason to hop in my jet black Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition and leave.

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